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Juan Rojas: Recovering indigenous memory in El Salvador

Tracy L. Barnett

LA FLORIDA, El Salvador – “That’s one of the purposes of the Salvadoran state, to make us forget,” Juan Rojas explains to me as we bump down the rugged dirt road that leads to his homestead, just six kilometers from San Salvador, but a world apart.

Rojas is determined to remember, and to help others remember, as well. It is here, and in rural villages elsewhere in the country, that Rojas is quietly working with indigenous peoples to recover the Mayan roots of this country. A country where the name Izalco, for most young people, just means a volcano, a town, or a street in San Salvador; but for the elders, it’s the name of a massacre, and of the native people who were extinguished on that day.

A curious mixture of Salvadoran revolutionary, Australian permaculturist and Mayan spiritualist, I met Juan Rojas on my first visit to El Salvador. He was one of the founders of the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador, a group teaching ecological design and agriculture principles to campesinos throughout the country. Rojas had stepped back from the institute in recent years to pursue other projects. His comments on that visit about restoring indigenous heritage in El Salvador made me curious, and I contacted him upon my return to learn more.

The story of his involvement in the revolution, of the attempts on his life and his escape to Mexico, his eventual move to Australia and his friendship with permaculture founder Bill Mollison, and his return to his country to help rebuild it after the war using the techniques of permaculture are worthy of an eco-adventure novel in themselves.  He shares that story in this video.

Now, however, he’s turned the page to a new chapter in his life, and I’m here to learn more about that.

Through his work with the permaculture institute, which spread sustainable agriculture techniques through the farmer-to-farmer movement, he became acquainted with subsistence farmers throughout Mesoamerica, some of whom still practiced the indigenous traditions of their ancestors. It was then that Juan began to realize that the principles of permaculture aren’t so different from the traditional teachings about agriculture.

“That’s one of the first things we learn in permaculture, and Bill Mollison explained this very well: to watch and see where does the air enter your land in different seasons of the year? How does the water enter, and how does it leave? The same for the sun, and for the earth: they are objects of study, of analysis, when you are going to design a piece of land,” he said. “But when we’re living in a zone like Mesoamerica, among the ancestral cultures there’s already been an elaborate thought system developed about these principles, the wind, the water, the earth, the sun.

“Unfortunately, we in El Salvador have lost our cosmology, our understanding of life, and that’s why we’re in such a difficult position, environmentally speaking, in terms of food sovereignty issues, criminal violence, all the things that are making El Salvador famous around the world,” he told me.

Juan shared his thoughts with me about the Mayan cosmovision and climate change, which I recorded in this video:

This has been an exciting year for him, as the slow process of recovering the historical and ancestral memory has begun to yield fruit. Working in indigenous communities in his native Sonsonate and in Morazan, he has been teaching permaculture principles and incorporating the Mayan cosmovision.

Along the way, as they study the Popol Vuh, the Mayan holy book, or discuss certain traditions in planting, the students will stop and get a sudden look of recognition on their faces, Juan said. “Oh! So that’s why my grandfather did that!” they will say. Or, “Oh, yes – I remember hearing about the virgin who gave birth to the twins who were the first humans – that’s like the Virgin Mary!”

At the same time, indigenous visibility has been rising in El Salvador, once thought to be a country devoid of indigenous people since the massacre of 1932 in Izalco that claimed the lives of an estimated 32,000.

In August, a gathering of indigenous peoples in Izalco made a public demand for official recognition and asked that the government be a signatory to Article 169 of the International Labor Organization, an international law guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples.

And in October, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes made a public apology to the country’s indigenous people for the government’s historic role in their repression, and responding to their request to recognize El Salvador as a “multiethnic and multicultural society.”
For more information on the Salvadoran indigenous communities and efforts to recover ancestral memory and heritage, write to him at mesopermacultura@yahoo.es